I suppose it makes sense that the New Testament figure with the most to say about the afterlife is the One who had actually seen it beforehand. I’ve known for years that the Bible records more teaching about hell from Jesus than from any other source. It makes for an amusing rebuttal to the people who claim to be followers of a sweetness-and-light Jesus while rejecting the teachings of His mean ole followers. Wherever they found their Jesus, they didn’t find Him in the Scriptures.
Recently, I’ve come to realize that Jesus is also the source most responsible for Bible teaching about our afterlife in heaven. Sure, you’ve got a goodly chunk of material in Revelation 21-22, but I’m only about 55 percent certain that it’s about heaven (as opposed to being about the victorious church), and John’s efforts to conceal his point from Scripturally ignorant contemporaries also serve to conceal his point pretty well from many Christians today. Unless you’re playing Old Testament Reference Bingo as you work through Revelation, you’re not going to get it.
Jesus, on the other hand, talks about heaven in Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-13, Luke 13:22-30, 14:15-24, and 22:28-30. Toss in the description of paradise as “Abraham’s side” in Luke 16:19-31, and you’ve got a considerable body of teaching that all employs the same accessible metaphor. To Jesus, heaven is a banquet, a wedding feast. I don’t think we’re doing the text a disservice to say that Jesus wants us to see heaven as an eternal party.
At this thought, a number of brethren become alarmed. In our society, after all, “party” has some ugly connotations. We hear “party” and think “frat-house kegger”. However, even for us, the essence of partying isn’t in getting drunk and sinning. Somebody who gets drunk by himself isn’t a party animal. He’s an alcoholic.
Instead, having a party is about being around other people and having fun with them. Certainly, I would choose different companions than the boys down at Delta Psi, and I would do different things with those companions, but for all of us, a party is about companionship.
As ideas go, that one is awfully close to the Biblical concept of fellowship, and fellowship is exactly what Jesus is attempting to convey with all of his feasting imagery. In Luke 16, Lazarus isn’t in Abraham’s bosom because they’re snuggling. It’s because they’re reclining at table, and Lazarus is leaning back against Abraham. In the final working-out of the kingdom of God, pauper and patriarch will celebrate together.
In No Exit, Sartre famously declares that hell is other people. He is exactly wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Heaven is. It’s impossible for us to get to heaven without loving others, and heaven will be filled with those who return our love. The joy that we experience there will be like the joy of an evening spent with dear friends, only intensified and prolonged for eternity.
Of course, the centerpiece of this eternal feast will be the bridegroom Himself, Jesus. I’ve never had a conversation with Jesus, though I desperately long to, but in heaven, the yearning of every honest heart for Him will be satisfied. Forever with the Lord, forever with His people—that’s a party that everyone should strive to attend!
Wholly devoted to Christ may I be:
Saved by my faith in His mercy to me,
Bound to my Master, yet joyful and free,
Wholly devoted to Jesus!
Wholly devoted, resolved to be pure,
Scorning the passing for what shall endure,
Journeying upward with step light and sure,
Wholly devoted to Jesus!
Wholly devoted in work and in prayer,
Useful for service and ready to share,
Never distracted by blessing or care,
Wholly devoted to Jesus!
Wholly devoted from day until night,
Trusting His promise as faith becomes sight,
Praising His glory through ages of light,
Wholly devoted to Jesus!
Of all the leaders in the Bible, Nehemiah is one of my favorites. He confronts a wide variety of problems, but through them all, he remains steadfast in his purpose, trusts God, and eventually achieves success.
One of Nehemiah’s most revealing actions, though, is something that he does not do. Nehemiah 6:10-13 tells the story. At this point in the book, the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem is nearly completed. The enemies of the Jews, led by Tobiah, Sanballat, and Geshem, have already tried the threat of force, assassination, and a whispering campaign. However, due to Nehemiah’s determination, none of these schemes have worked.
Their next attempt is even subtler. Beginning in v. 10, Nehemiah visits the house of a prophet named Shemaiah. Shemaiah reports that Nehemiah’s enemies are coming to kill him, so in order to save his life, Nehemiah needs to flee into the temple and bar the doors behind him.
Nehemiah reacts with outrage, and he does so for two reasons. First, such cowardice would be exactly the opposite of the example that the people need. Second, Nehemiah isn’t a priest. He knows that he isn’t allowed to enter the temple, into which only the priests can go as part of their daily and yearly service. In Nehemiah’s view, it would be better for him to die outside the temple than to flee into the temple and save his life.
At some point, Nehemiah realizes that Shemaiah has only said these things because Tobiah and Sanballat have paid him to do so. However, whether we are faced with hired liars or not, Nehemiah’s resolution has much to teach us. In our lives too, there are those who encourage disobedience to the law of God because it appears to be expedient. These false counselors will advise us to reject God’s pattern for worship because you need a praise band up on stage in order to draw young people. They’ll tell us that we should use anything from raffles to free food to attract those whom the gospel won’t attract, so that maybe they’ll get a little gospel on the side.
Though such advice appears wise to the world, it can only bring disaster to the kingdom of God. First, it requires us to abandon our conviction that God’s way works. I believe in the power of the gospel to touch hearts and change lives just as it did 2000 years ago. I believe that the simple pattern of the New Testament will still please God and edify men as it did in the first century. Why abandon the perfect wisdom of God for the wisdom of men, which has proven to be anything but perfect?
Even if God’s way isn’t working anymore, even if we are living in a time like the time of Noah, there’s no point in using clever tricks to expose sinners to a powerless gospel. If those who will have no interest in God come for the sake of free food, their interest will continue to be in free food and not in God. They will remain unconverted. Conversely, if the power of God can reach them, the free food is unnecessary.
No matter how threatening the times may seem to be, the example of Nehemiah shows us that the best course is to remain steadfast. What is right always has been right and will continue to be right. The ancient paths will lead us to success, but listening to Shemaiahs can only entice us into failure.
Nehemiah is one of the most determined and resourceful leaders that God’s people ever had, but one of the most impressive things that we see out of him is what he is thinking before he ever does anything. In Nehemiah 1:1-3, he learns that the returned exiles in Jerusalem are in bad shape because the city still doesn’t have walls. In 1:4-11, he entreats God to help him solve the problem.
Notice the pronoun there. Nehemiah doesn’t say, “Lord, help those returned exiles get their act together.” He doesn’t say, “Let my useless brother stop talking about the problem and start solving it.” Instead, he acknowledges that this is a problem he can help with, and he asks God’s blessing on his own plans.
If there is any spirit that ought to be more widespread among the Lord’s people, this is it. As a rule, even the best Christians are more inclined to complain about the problems of the church and others’ inactivity than they are to consider their own ways and ask what they can do about the problem themselves.
What’s more, we’re often so used to exempting ourselves from criticism that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. I’ve had many conversations through the years with brethren who see a weakness in the congregation (example: “We don’t spend enough time with each other outside of worship services.”). When I respond with a suggestion for how they can solve the problem (example: “Why don’t you invite everybody over for a potluck after services sometime?”), with a staggering lack of self-awareness, they invariably begin to offer excuses about why they can’t help (example: “I can’t do that! I’m too busy.”).
It’s the spiritual equivalent of buying a lottery ticket instead of getting a job. You want the good result, but you don’t want to work to get there. This mindset can only lead to a vicious cycle of inactivity and bitterness. Everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else, nobody is doing anything, so everybody just gets angrier and angrier about everybody else’s inactivity.
Rather than looking outward for solutions, all of us need to look inward and upward. OK, so my congregation is imperfect. Every congregation is. What can I personally do about it? What can I do to make assemblies more powerful, or connections between brethren stronger, or lost people more likely to obey the gospel?
None of us can solve every problem a church has, but every one of us can solve some of them. What’s more, just as a spirit of blame is contagious, so is a spirit of selflessness and hard work. Other Christians won’t be motivated to serve by our hypocritical complaints about their uselessness, but they will be by our example of service. The more we work, the more we invite others to work with us (another crucial spiritual skill that Nehemiah mastered), the more the Lord’s work will succeed.
When we see work that needs to be done, then, rather than blameshifting, let’s pray. Like Nehemiah, let’s say, “Lord, show me how I can help, and give me the strength and courage to do it.”
Human beings are rotten at predicting the future. Weather forecasters today have computers crammed with sophisticated mathematical models. They have access to real-time data that their predecessors could only dream about. And yet, with all this plus years or even decades of experience and training, they’re about as likely to get next week’s weather right as I am to sink a half-court three-pointer.
No matter what some might pretend, we have no idea what’s going to happen, and this extends even to predicting the consequences of our own actions. Even the most discerning of us are frequently surprised by how our lives turn out.
We can’t be shrewd, but we can be good. Though doing the right thing doesn’t always benefit us (Exhibit A: Jesus), it frequently does. A godly choice now can have consequences that bless our lives in ways that we didn’t anticipate.
We see this principle at work in the life of Mordecai, cousin and guardian of the Persian queen Esther. Mordecai is a dutiful protector, and after she is taken into the palace, he frequents the king’s gate to see how she’s doing. While there, he learns that two of the king’s doorkeepers are plotting against the king.
This is no business of Mordecai’s. Ahasuerus is not a particularly good or likeable king, and he’s a foreigner besides. It would have been easy for Mordecai to ignore the whole matter with a subway-rider’s nonchalance: “I didn’t see nothin’, man!”
However, he doesn’t. The king is the king, and it’s wrong to plot against the king. Mordecai tells Esther, Esther tells the king in Mordecai’s name, and the two doorkeepers are exposed and executed. Nothing is done for Mordecai, and he continues his sojourn at the gate.
While there, he incurs the enmity of Haman, the second most powerful man in the kingdom, by not kowtowing to him. Haman decides to get his revenge by eradicating the whole Jewish nation, but first of all, he wants to see Mordecai decorating a gallows in his front yard.
He goes to Ahasuerus, desiring permission to kill Mordecai, but the king has something else in mind. Belatedly, he has been reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty, and he has decided that he wants to honor him. Rather than dragging Mordecai to the gallows, Haman ends up praising him in public. If Mordecai hadn’t done the difficult-but-right thing, he would have been executed. As it was, though, his selfless act was the first step of his climb to prominence in the Persian government.
Today, we probably won’t be called upon to disrupt assassination plots, but we are called upon to do good in less dramatic ways. Opportunities to be gracious to others abound in all of our lives. They start with the needy of the church (and sometimes what the needy need is emotional rather than financial support) and go from there.
We should take advantage of these opportunities because it’s the right thing to do. However, we also should not forget, nor be surprised by, the persistence of the effects of doing good. When we seek the Lord first, He will often bless our righteousness in ways we could not have imagined.